Deep-Sea Corals Felt Impacts of Deepwater Horizon Spill

Article excerpt

Scientists from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) helped find strong evidence that the Deepwater Horizon oil spill had impacts on deep-sea coral communities in the Gulf of Mexico.

The study, published in March 2012 in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, used all of the deep-sea robotic vehicles of the WHOI-operated National Deep Submergence Facility--the three-person submersible Alvin, the remotely operated vehicle Jason, and the autonomous underwater vehicle Sentry--to investigate corals near the ruptured Macondo well.

"These corals exhibited varying levels of stress, including bare skeletons, tissue loss, and excess mucus production--all associated with a covering of brown flocculent material," said WHOI biologist Tim Shank.

The study's lead author, Helen White, a geochemist at Haverford College, worked with WHOI marine chemist Christopher Reddy and WHOI researcher Robert Nelson to identify oil found in the coral communities and surrounding sediments. They provided evidence that its source was the Macondo well, using an advanced technique, pioneered at WHOI by Reddy and Nelson, called comprehensive two-dimensional gas chromatography. Pen-Yuan Hsing, a graduate student at Pennsylvania State University (PSU), compiled further evidence by analyzing 69 images of 43 individual corals taken with cameras on undersea vehicles.

The study grew out of a research cruise to the Gulf led by PSU biologist Chuck Fisher in late October 2010, six months after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. …